What's In A Name?

Since I was a young man I have had nicknames, have had different titles, and have even been called a few choice words; in short I have been called by many names. I will pretty much answer to anything — to this day there is one person who even calls me Jeffy; I wouldn’t suggest anybody try to make habit of it, unless you are the one person authorized to call me that!

As a teenager my friends all called me Chief, but for two different reasons. Some called me Chief because my name in Spanish is Jefe, which means chief; others called me Chief because my dad was a police chief. When my wife and I got married we moved into the same ward as her sister. As I worked nights and weekends most people at church didn’t know me, but knew of me. When I would be introduced face to face for the first time they would simply say, ‘Oh, you’re Ann Burn’s sister’s husband!’ Over time I’ve been called Officer, Detective, President, and Bishop. A few months ago at a church function I shook hands with a man as he asked my name. I told him, and he quickly replied, ‘Oh, you’re the Stake Relief Society President’s husband.’ I simply replied, ‘Yes I am.’

I’ve never been a stickler for names or titles, though when in public settings I strive to be very proper with titles — not as it pertains to me, but in how I address people — it is a matter of respect. I have very similar feelings for labeling, a close cousin to names and titles.

The general function of labels [is] widely known and recognized as a method of distinction that helps people recognize one product from another.
Consider the golden arches of McDonalds and the red and white bucket featuring a white haired southern gentleman with goatee and string tie of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The labels are both universally identifiable and yet patently dissimilar. ‘In social terms, labels represent a way of differentiating and identifying people,’ they are ‘shorthand for what we want to communicate and yet, they often obscure what is really being said.’

Daniel Gottlieb, whose grandson Sam was diagnosed with autism, wrote that Sam needed to be ‘classified that way in order to receive the services’ he needed. I wholeheartedly agree. Still, Daniel knew Sam was ‘so much more than autistic.’ In Letters to Sam, he wrote, 
Over the years I have learned that I am not a quadriplegic. I have quadriplegia. You are not autistic. You have autism…with my spinal cord injury and your autism, we look different and act different. But…no matter what happens to our bodies or our minds, our souls remain whole. 
Amen brother!

As a young bishop I had opportunities to counsel people over a variety of issues. A common theme I would come across as I spoke to people was that they tended to materialize their trials, and tribulations. As they would go through the process of changing their lives they were reluctant to let go of their baggage. It was like declaring, ‘you don’t understand. This baggage is Gucci! This baggage didn’t come from Wal-Mart, or the dollar store, these are designer pieces of baggage that I carry!’ Worse was the implied argument that they had collected the whole set. It wasn’t like they just had a piece of fancy baggage, they had the whole set; how could they afford to get rid of it. How would anybody know what he or she went through if they got rid of every piece of baggage? If they gave it all away then nobody would ever know it had been Gucci!

It didn’t matter that the skeletons were gone, and that these individuals were carrying around empty shells of baggage. What became important to them was the status of it all.

As if life was not dramatic enough with the ups and downs we all face regularly, it seems sometimes we tend to seek out additional problems, or worse yet, we seek out additional labels to throw on what we have so that it looks more important. If a picture is worth a thousand words how priceless are a handful of labels? Could this be why the world has such a craving for reality TV? If we can’t fill our status banks with dysfunction and drama in our own life then we seek out other places to obtain it, even if it is just by proxy.

And so we haphazardly throw out labels and give names and titles to things:
‘Oh he’s schizophrenic,’ ‘she’s bi-polar,’ ‘she’s anorexic,’ ‘he’s an alcoholic’ and the meaning gets conveyed and yet, is it? After all that’s not ALL the person is. It’s something they have been diagnosed with, perhaps are struggling with, it’s a medical term, but it does not encompass who and what that person is in their entirety. When I hear someone describe another person as ‘autistic’ I understand that person has been given a diagnosis of autism, but I don’t presume to know much more about that person…I can’t know from the various labels whether the person has a sense of humor, if… the person is gregarious or shy, enjoys reading about painting or knows everything there is to know about quantum physics. The label does not tell me about the person’s passions, dreams, desires or talents.
When all is said and done, if people don’t remember my nicknames, titles I've had, or recall that I wrote blogs, or if my resume to them is a blur, and my church service unremarkable, so be it. As long as there is at least one thing for which I am known that is fully descriptive and tells everybody about me, my passions, dreams, and desires I will be at peace.

So, what got me to thinking about this? During our vacation this summer, Ethan did something and got in trouble. I don’t recall what it was that he did; it obviously made such a lasting impression on me that I can’t even recall when or where or what it was. But a statement he made has had a lasting affect on me. When he realized he was in trouble, he apologized with a perfect Ethanism — that familiar morphed movie quotation with tangled syntax, semantic, and organizational noise that fit so sweetly. It was music to my ears.

'Dad, I am proud of myself to call Jeff my dad!'

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